To the Beat of His Own Drum: The Reception and Influence of Edgard Varése’s Ionisation

by Nicholas Martinez


The early twentieth century saw a rise in the role of percussion instruments in Western art music. Composers took special interest in the unique timbres of unpitched percussion instruments and began thinking critically about the many different qualities of sound they could make. With this experimentation emerged music written solely for large groups of percussion instruments, the percussion ensemble. The first piece written only for percussion instruments, Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, was premiered in 1933. The premiere of this work sparked debate among music critics about the merit of the work and whether music without any discernible pitches could be considered music at all. Ionisation continues to be an important cornerstone in the world of percussion but also in a broader musical sense. The piece can be seen as a precursor to musique concrète and to electronic music of later decades. The piece attracted the young ears of William Schuman and Frank Zappa who both claimed that the work had been one of the reasons for pursuing musical composition. As with other experimental and avant-grade music of the early twentieth century, the music of Varèse was trend-setting and invited later composers to elevate the role of percussion instruments to that which is equal to pitched instruments. Varèse was also one of the first composers to truly consider the timbre of individual instruments and to cater the compositional process to the inherent qualities of each percussion instrument as evident in the rhythmic composition of Ionisation.

By the early twentieth century, many compositions for orchestra and chamber ensembles featured a vast array of percussion instruments and had been praised by music critics of the time. However, when Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation was premiered in 1933, it was clear that the world of western art music was not prepared for a piece written solely for a collection of unpitched percussion instruments. Varèse’s landmark work for thirteen percussionists introduced composers to a new medium: the percussion ensemble. The reaction to such an ensemble was mixed; some skeptics claimed that music written solely for unpitched instruments was in fact not music at all, while other music critics found the work fascinating and inventive for its exceptional use of timbre and rhythm. Though music for percussion ensemble has become widely accepted in the past century, controversy still follows Ionisation as to whether it is the first piece written for percussion ensemble and just how wide the scope of its influence is on further compositions for percussion instruments. Ionisation challenged listeners of the time to think outside of pitch structures and instead focus on rhythm and timbre through the sole use of unpitched percussion instruments.


Varèse was born in Paris in 1883; however, most of his career was spent living in the United States. The majority of his musical training took place in France at the Schola Cantorum and the Paris Conservatoire, though he spent a significant amount of time during his youth studying engineering in Turin due to his father’s disapproval of pursuing music as a field of study.[1] These studies in engineering became integral to his work as a composer, as he composed electronic music and found inspiration for many of his works, including Ionisation, in the physics of nature.[2] Varèse moved to America in 1915, where he wrote many of his popular early works including Amériques and Hyperprism.[3] It was also during this time that he founded the International Composers’ Guild and met Léon Theremin, the inventor of the theremin which proved to be an important instrument in Varèse’s later compositions.[4] Varèse moved back to France where he wrote Ionisation and later experimented with writing pioneering electronic music such as his Poème électronique.[5]

First Reactions

The premiere of Ionisation had early setbacks. No ensemble dared play the work until conductor and friend of Varèse, Nicolas Slonimsky, agreed to conduct the premiere.[6] Varèse was unable to attend the rehearsals or the first performance of the work, and the performers who were supposed to be premiering the work had trouble playing the rhythms that Varèse had written.[7] Rhythmically, the piece is quite difficult, with an abundance of complex polyrhythms that have some notes left out of them superimposed upon much simpler rhythms. The premiere ended in tremendous applause, though some might have clapped simply because the piece was over. Many critics of Varèse’s music actually enjoyed the work more due to its lack of striking dissonances that were copious in his previous works. At subsequent performances, however, Ionisation was not as well received. A year after its premiere, the second performance of the piece was given, to which The New York Times printed that Ionisation “could hardly be called music.”[8] After the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of the piece was broadcasted, listeners’ letters were published in The Los Angeles Times attacking the work.[9]

classic microphone picture

While the conservative audience-goers of the early twentieth century disapproved of Varèse’s disregard for tonality and lack of pitched instruments, the musical elite of the time praised his work for its fresh timbres and invigorating rhythms. Paul Rosenfeld, a music critic who attended the premiere, described the work as “terrible and marvelous,” and the next day, he described hearing the “insignificant” noises of New York City as “suddenly becom[ing] interesting, full of character and meaning.”[10] These sentiments were the reactions Varèse was striving to achieve as he had stated in a roundtable discussion that “[the present tempered scale system] suffices to provide musical expression of our emotions or conceptions.”[11] With Ionisation, Varèse had introduced to concert attendees a new world of sound, uninhibited by pitch and dominated by timbre. The composer Olivier Messiaen stated that the piece ranked “very high among the productions of the twentieth century.”[12]

With Varèse’s rising popularity among the musical elite came the opportunity for Ionisation to be recorded, which would send the piece’s notoriety even higher. The first recording of the piece was to be played by members of the New York Philharmonic, but the piece proved to be too complex for them to play. As a result, Varèse and Slonimsky put together a star-studded ensemble made up of emerging composers of new music at the time. The ensemble included Paul Creston, Henry Cowell, Carlos Salzedo, a young William Schuman, and Varèse himself, among other performers. Schuman later commented that it was this recording session for Ionisation that “launched [him] on [his] musical career.”[13] In 1951, EMS released a record of complete works by Varèse, with the Juilliard Percussion Orchestra performing Ionisation. Young Frank Zappa heard about a piece (Ionisation) that was “a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds,” and was instantly intrigued.[14] Zappa, who would later become an icon in American popular music, found the EMS record and listened to it frequently, reporting that the record sparked his interest in other twentieth century composers and in learning music composition for himself.[15]

Structure and Analysis

Varèse’s use of timbre and rhythm is a critical component in the form of Ionisation, highlighting the importance of those aspects in his music. While Ionisation cannot be analyzed by the means of a traditional form structure, several timbral and textural motives occur throughout the piece, either alone or in combination with other motives. The first of these structures occurs from the beginning of the piece until measure 9. In this structure, the general range of frequencies produced by the instruments played are fairly low, making use of several bass drums, sirens at a low dynamic, and a collection of tam-tams. The rhythms are fairly slow moving, and the texture is very sparse.[16] The first collective gesture made between most of the performers takes the form of a swell in measure 8 that ends together at a short, loud note that prepares the entrance of the military drum at measure 9.

At measure 9, the second of three structures appears, a polyphonic rhythmic texture shared by two or more instruments of opposing timbres contrasted with relatively short interjections by other instruments. In this first appearance, the bongos and the military drum provide the rhythmic counterpoint while supported by accents from the maracas, cymbals, bass drum, and slapstick.[17] The military drum is a low sounding membranophone with snares, and the bongos are higher sounding membranophones without snares; the difference between these two timbres provides clear contrast between the parts. Measure 13 marks a return to structure one, followed immediately by a return to a texture reminiscent of structure two in measure 18 and an even more obvious return of structure two in measure 21.

Structure three is a monophonic texture that incorporates most of the ensemble.[18] The first iteration of this structure occurs at measure 38 with the triplet figures, complemented by interjections of structure two between the military drum and the castanets/‘tarole’ combination. This structure is striking to the listener as it is the first time in the piece that almost all the performers are playing the same rhythm in unison, compared to the complexity of the rhythmic counterpoint found throughout the rest of the work’s structures. This structure continues until measure 51 with the heralding entrance of the anvils. The entrance of the anvils marks a recapitulation, the return of structure one. All of the structures seem to make shortened entrances throughout this recapitulation until the coda at measure 75.

The coda is demarcated by the introduction of pitched instruments. While the piano, chimes, and glockenspiel are all pitched instruments, they are not used in an expected way. Each succession of any five chords struck by these instruments contains all twelve pitches of the chromatic collection, thus eliminating their function as melodic or harmonic. The coda marks the first and only instance where all three structures are superimposed upon each other.[19] Structure one is realized in the sirens, suspended cymbal, and tam-tam parts. Structure two is found in the pitched percussion parts as well as the player one and two parts. Structure three is found in its original instrumentation, between the player three and four parts.

This strange form of Ionisation can be understood best after reading one of Varèse’s many descriptions of form. Varèse stated, “There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is the consequence of this reaction.”[20] These reactions that influence the form of this work are analogous to the process of ionization in physics, in which atoms collide with other particles and acquire a charge to form ions. The piece is named after this process.

Another inventive characteristic of Ionisation is its use of timbre in relation to rhythm. Varèse writes quite specifically and caters his writing toward each percussion instrument individually. In that fashion, he typically writes slower rhythmic patterns for instruments with lower indefinite frequencies and longer sustain, and faster rhythmic patterns for instruments with higher indefinite frequencies and shorter sustain. By this method, the instruments with the shortest rhythmic values are the ‘tarole,’ the chinese blocks, and the military drum. In contrast, the instruments with the largest rhythmic values are the bass drum, gongs, and sirens. This relationship between timbre and rhythm is explained clearly in Jean-Charles François’ analysis of the the work’s rhythmic diminutions: the lower sounding instruments present a rhythmic cell that becomes shortened through diminution in later presentations by higher sounding instruments.[21]

Eastern Influences

The relationship Varèse establishes between rhythm and timbre could have its roots in Balinese gamelan music. Balinese gamelan ensemble is one of the earliest music ensembles comprised of solely percussion instruments: thus, it would come as no surprise that Varèse may have been inspired by this Eastern musical tradition. In Balinese gamelan, the parts become faster and more animated as the instruments get smaller and higher pitched. This results in a stratification of rhythms, with the gongs playing extremely slow rhythms and the other parts providing faster figurations of the main melody, resulting in a complex tapestry of rhythms.[22] This is similar to Varèse’s use of timbre to determine the relative speed of rhythms between various instruments in Ionisation. The lowest sounding instruments in Ionisation, such as the gongs and sirens, play extremely long notes which are typically tied over barlines, and the rhythms in the other parts get progressively faster as the instrumentation gets higher pitched, such as the chinese blocks and ‘tarole’ that feature 32nd note rhythms quite frequently. In Balinese gamelan, typically “cymbals reinforce the drums on important accents,” which can be seen in many measures of Ionisation where the hand cymbal part plays singular notes on accented notes in the drum parts.[23] Varèse’s careful treatment of rhythm and timbre, as well as his consideration for sound was a tradition not yet rooted in Western music of the time, but rather in Eastern music, where percussion music is the music of the culture.[24] With Ionisation, Varèse creates a cosmopolitan ideal with Western structure and timbres from the East.

Long-Standing Debate

There is still debate today on whether Ionisation was the first piece written for percussion ensemble. The music of the early twentieth century saw a lot of experimentation and expansion of the percussion section, resulting in music written for only unpitched percussion. Some music historians claim that Cuban conductor Amateo Roldan had written the first pieces for percussion ensemble in 1930, Ritmicas V and Ritmicas VI. Here lie two reasons for the debate: the date of composition and the content of the pieces themselves. While Roldan had finished his Ritmicas in 1930, Varèse had already begun his work on Ionisation in 1929, but would not finish it until 1931.[25] In addition, Roldan’s work is quite basic, employing only a few performers playing traditional cuban instruments and rhythms, while Varèse’s work is much more ambitious. Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander Tcherepnin had also written for unpitched percussion ensemble before the premiere of Ionisation. However, the music for percussion ensemble in Shostakovich’s The Nose and in Tcherepnin’s Symphony No. 1 are only a small part, less than three minutes, of much larger works. Ionisation eclipses these other pieces in importance to the creation and development of the percussion ensemble medium, as it is the first piece of Western art music to be written for solely unpitched percussion instruments and make the world question the definition of music.[26]

Influence on Later Music

Ionisation is a musical cornerstone in the development of composing for percussion instruments. Varèse’s talents in writing for percussion were well known as he often wrote music that exposed the percussion section such that the listener experienced percussion anew in comparison to the preceding classical repertory.[27] Varèse’s performance notes on how the percussion parts are to be played in his works are incredibly detailed, designating the mallets to be used and how the instruments are to be positioned.[28] The role of percussion instruments in music before Varèse’s time was subordinate to the role of pitched instruments, and Varèse challenged this compositional practice by elevating the importance of percussion parts, a trend that would continue throughout the 20th century.

image of records

With the use of some of the instruments in Ionisation, the piece is considered a significant precursor to the genre of musique concrète, or the use of superimposed recorded sounds to create a musical structure.[29] Specifically, the parts written for sirens, whip, anvils, and lion’s roar seem to anticipate Varèse’s later investigations into electronic music and musique concrète. The sounds produced from these instruments were previously associated not with music, but with everyday life. They were noises and sounds that were heard everyday outside of a musical context, and suddenly, Varèse had made their timbres musical. Such a technique is in line with Varèse’s definition of music as “organized sound.” Ionisation was later analyzed by composers of musique concrète such as Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen, who stated that Ionisation showed “how one can deal creatively with sound events that were previously situated more at the margins of musical experience,” a defining characteristic of musique concrète.[30]

Though there were many critics of Varèse’s Ionisation following its premiere, claiming that music without notes was not music at all, it is obvious that this piece has had a lasting impact on several different musical genres. Varèse’s experiments with timbre and sound led to the development of the percussion ensemble as a medium for composers to write for. Varèse’s interests in the sounds of everyday life and his incorporation of those sounds into his works paved the way for musique concrète. Varèse’s careful construction of sound shocked listeners of the time and inspired other composers to think much more critically about the timbres and colors of the instruments they wrote for.


1. Malcolm MacDonald, “Only One Thing of Value: Varèse the Burgundian,” in Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, ed. Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006), 20.

2. Anne C. Shreffler, “Varèse and the Technological Sublime: or, How Ionisation went Nuclear,” in Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, ed. Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006), 290.

3. Alan Clayson, Edgard Varèse (London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002), 92-3.

4. Ibid, 96-7.

5. Ibid, 120.

6. Ibid, 128.

7. Nicolas Slonimsky, Perfect Pitch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 138.

8. Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, Translated by Derek Coltman, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981), 124.

9. Nicolas Slonimsky, Perfect Pitch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 140.

10. Alan Clayson, Edgard Varèse (London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002), 135.

11. Ibid, 127.

12. Ibid.

13. Nicolas Slonimsky, Perfect Pitch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 138-9.

14. Matthias Kassel, “Frank Zappa and the Idol of His Youth,” in Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, ed. Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006), 443-444.

15. Ibid.

16. Jean-Charles François, “Organization of Scattered Timbral Qualities: A Look at Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation,” Perspectives of New Music 29, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 49-50.

17. Ibid, 51.

18. Ibid, 51-2.

19. Ibid, 53-4.

20. Ibid, 73.

21. Ibid, 55-7.

22. Colin McPhee,. “The Five-tone Gamelan Music of Bali,” The Musical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (April 1949): 259–60.

23. Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, Translated by Derek Coltman, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981), 108.

24. Ibid.

25. Alan Clayson, Edgard Varèse (London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002), 127.

26. Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse, Translated by Derek Coltman, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1981), 108.

27. Alan Clayson, Edgard Varèse (London: Sanctuary Publishing, 2002), 172.

28. Ibid, 128.

29. Daniel Teruggi, “Musique Concrète Today: Its reach, evolution of concepts and role in musical thought,” Organized Sound 20, no. 1 (April 2015): 51

30. Gianmario Borio, “A Strange Phenomenon: Varèse’s Influence on the European Avant-Garde,” in Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006), 364.

Nicholas Martinez is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. He is majoring in Music Education and Music Theory at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music and is a member of the UGA Percussion Studio. He has performed in many ensembles throughout the school of music, including the UGA Percussion Ensemble, the Hodgson Wind Ensemble, the UGA Symphony Orchestra, and the UGA British Brass Band.

Citation style: Chicago

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